FORMER Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, who was East Lancashire’s top detective when he retired from the force last year, tells why he agrees with Jack Straw's controversial comments on sex grooming.

WHEN I came to Blackburn in the 1970s, one of my main issues was the gangs of Asian men outside the old nightclub on top of the shopping centre who were picking up drunk white girls, specifically to abuse them.

These were cars full of Asian lads in BMWs and Mercedes, offering lifts home to these young women, leading to incidents of rape and sexual assaults.

From the first time I was posted to East Lancashire it has been a problem.

What Jack Straw has said so carefully is true: There is a problem with some members of the Pakistani community targeting young women in this way. In recent years we have seen it specifically with victims aged just 14, 15 or 16-years-old who are out on the streets at night and groomed by predatory gangs.

For people to just come out and call Mr Straw racist is wrong.

There must be a debate, not on his right to make the comments but on the issue itself because if we can’t do that then we can’t be honest about the issues that currently affect our communities.

During the past decade there has been Operation Engage in Blackburn and Operation Awaken in Blackpool as the police has been able to feel more open about the situation.

In the past there have been major fears of being seen as racist, especially after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry at the Met police said the force was institutionally racist.

Because of the sensitivities, saying that there is an issue in the way that Mr Straw did is very brave but it needs to be said so there can be a serious and informed debate.

What no-one is saying is that the Pakistani community is responsible for the majority of sex crimes: This is just an element of sex crimes in general.

This is a specific problem within a group of people in a minority community.

But what we are saying is that on this specific issue there is a problem that needs addressing.

More however needs to be done to publicise the work that is ongoing.

How many Lancashire Telegraph readers know what Operation Engage is? The operation has seen millions of pounds invested but who is heading it up from the police?

There is no high-profile leader to this operation and there needs to be.

Even if it is just for people in the community to understand that there is a problem but also a lot of working being completed to tackle it.

There must be a debate but it must be thoughtful and balanced and sensitively handled.

Debate is healthy and the only way that advances can be made.